There are a few food phenomena that we just don’t see very often in Little Rock, and truly kosher (or in keeping with kashrut) food is one of them.
If you’re a goy like me and only have a smidge of an idea as to what kosher food even is, you’re not alone. At culinary school (at least thus far), we’ve only had a cursory explanation of what it means. And in all honesty, I knew it had to do with meeting Judaic law about food, but also assumed it was a style of cooking: Jewish food, like matzo ball soup or knishes.
So, when André Poirot, executive chef at the Peabody Hotel and my Culinary French instructor, told us about the kosher meal he was preparing for the Jewish Federation of Arkansas, I was intrigued. I asked to tag along, hoping to learn a little more about this fascinating combination of faith and sustenance.
Chef André couldn’t use his kitchen at the Peabody for the meal, because a kosher kitchen has to be specially cleaned, approved by a special supervisor, and used for nothing else while the meal is prepared. For two days before the actual event, his staff took over a banquet kitchen at the Statehouse Convention Center. They scrubbed the facilities from top to bottom, boiled what metal items could be used, and purchased new items when necessary.
Rabbi Kalman Winnick of Little Rock’s Congregation Agudath Achim was on hand for the entire process, as dictated by kosher law. He was open and endearing, happily sharing the details of kosher preparation with those of us who were curious and clueless.
Winnick identified three basic elements of kosher cooking: the ingredients, the equipment, and a person to supervise.
The Ingredients. Maybe you’ve noticed those odd little markings on your prepared foods: a U or K in a circle, maybe with a D by it, or something similar. These are critical to those preparing kosher food, as they signify whether or not the food meets kosher standards, and whether or not they contain dairy or meat products. If they do, they must be segregated into separate kitchens, one for dairy and one for meat. They cannot be served together.
The Equipment. For kosher cooking, all equipment must either be new or properly cleaned, or “kashered,” to remove not only any non-kosher food from the outside, but also any trace that may have been absorbed into the material of the vessel. Metal items can usually be boiled in water (as were the two hundred metal cloches for this dinner); some glass can be cleaned to become kosher. If there is a question, it’s better to purchase new equipment, but an experienced kosher supervisor can make this determination.
A Person to Supervise. A rabbi or layperson trained in kosher law must be present during preparation of a kosher meal (at least commercially) to verify that the food and equipment used meet kashrut standards. While a formal “blessing” by the rabbi is only folklore, he or she does actively approve ingredients and dishes. For this particular dinner, the event would begin just as the Sabbath was ending, and Rabbi Winnick, in keeping Sabbath tradition, would just be leaving his home. In the photo above, he is approving the crudite ahead of time so it could be served immediately upon his arrival, as the kosher supervisor must be present for service.
Winnick said that aspiring chefs “should have a mutual respect for meeting the patron’s spiritual obligations” when faced with the opportunity to prepare a kosher meal. “Respect should be just as important as making a beautiful presentation.
“For us, it’s not a reason thing, but a faith thing,” he added. “This comes from a higher source.”
Winnick offered suggestions to restaurant chefs who may have the occasional kosher-keeping patron arrive in their dining rooms.
“It is hard to give one answer as to what to do in a restaurant since many Jewish people have different ways they interpret the rules for themselves,” he said. “But I can say this: All fresh, uncut, unpeeled fruit or vegetables are always kosher. They can be rinsed in water, being careful not to use a non-kosher sponge or brush, and brought whole on disposable plate and utensils.
“In addition, there may be individual serving packages — crackers, cookies, ice cream, yogurt, cereal, peanuts — which may have kosher symbols on them and can be brought to the table. It is not as pretty or tasty as what the chef might prepare, but it is meeting the needs of the patron.”
As for the food at this particular event, it was more French than Jewish in style, and from the diners’ reviews, it was amazing. So much so, in fact, that it almost caused a problem.
One diner, complimenting the meal, told a server, “That was so good, I can’t believe it was kosher. Where was the kitchen?”
The server, not knowing the extent to which Chef Poirot had gone to keep a kosher kitchen on the other side of the building, pointed to the nearby, regular one. You can imagine the almost-disaster that ensued.
“We got it all sorted out in the end,” Poirot said later. “I took it as a compliment.”